Here are some questions I was asked during my seminars and talks in Indonesia. The title of the seminar was “Why Is It Important to Teach Theology to Children?” In some seminars, the word “theology” was rephrased as “doctrine.”
Question – How can we teach doctrine to children if we don’t obey the doctrine ourselves?
This question was asked at least three times (with different wording) during the different meetings. It seems that some had identified “doctrine” with rules and regulations. Since, from the start, I had used the catechisms (Heidelberg and Westminster) as main references for teaching doctrine, I explained how the Heidelberg catechism is divided into Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude, and Christian doctrine includes all three sections. The rules and regulations (do’s and dont’s) are part of the last section. We obey God out of gratitude for his grace, bestowed on us in spite of our guilt. The catechism also explains how we are all – parents and teachers – struggling against our sinful nature but are preserved by God through his Spirit.
This actually opened the door to more questions. When I gave the example of my son driving my car when he was four and watering my bed with a hose when he was three, and I explained how he was irresistibly drawn to all things forbidden, everyone’s interest perked up. I actually brought up this story to explain how the Reformed faith changed my view of education. Before, I wanted perfect kids so I could look like a good Christian. Now, I know that my children and I are both sinners in God’s eyes.
The next question after that was, How did you deal with him? I replied that recognizing the grip that sin had on this little guy gave me compassion for him. I punished him, of course, but I also talked to him heart-to-heart. We read Romans 7. I explained how I have similar struggles, but through Christ we also have the power to fight.
This led to more and more questions. Later, I was told that in Asia parents never confess their sins to their children (or in front of their children). They are supposed to provide a perfect sample and to expect perfect obedience. In further talks, I made clear that I also expect respect from my children, and that the distinction parent/child is very clear in our home. At the same time, in God’s eyes we are equally sinners and fellow pilgrims in this valley of tears.
Question – Isn’t doctrine too abstract for children?
This question also was rephrased in other ways. Isn’t doctrine too dry, too difficult to grasp, not exciting? In this case, I referred to Michael Horton’s explanation of the Story (or Drama) behind the doctrine. Doctrine is abstract and dry if it’s not based on the Drama – the Story of God redeeming a people for Himself through Jesus Christ. We should always remember the story while we teach the catechism, and we may also remember the catechism as we teach the story. Drama and doctrine are tied together.
Question – How can we make doctrine exciting for our children?
This question is tied to the previous one, but many have asked this separately. Obviously, first we need to be excited ourselves. We need to always remember the drama behind it. As Dorothy Sayers said, “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man.” We need to capture this excitement and pass it on to our children. Then the need to study doctrine, or theology, will be compelling. When we realize the wonder of the Gospel, this message of good news that is delivered outside of us and that is so foreign to our sinful nature, we want to know more just like a child who sees a rainbow wants to know how it’s made.
Children are curious by nature. They usually have many questions about God but they don’t always ask. The catechism helps to put some of those questions into words.
We all know that teaching doctrine CAN be dry. Some of us have experienced boring teachers or have at least seen them in movies (caricatures of this kind abound). While memorization is important, we don’t want to limit our teaching to rote memorization. The questions help to engage the children. Think of the first question in the small catechism for younger children. “Who made you? God.” It opens up a whole world of discussions between parent and child. The following questions then flow easily – What else did God make, and why? We can join our children in the excitement of discovery of what God has revealed, and in the sense of awe and mystery about what God has not yet revealed.